Documentary Business

Peter Hamilton Consultants, Inc

Donald Trump: Reality TV’s Presidential Candidate Rides ‘Earned Media’ to the Nomination

Political analysts distinguish between ‘earned’ or ‘free’ media and ‘bought’ media to explain Donald Trump’s unexpected, continuing dominance of the Republican presidential campaign.

As an example of ‘earned’ media, they point to Trump’s appearance as host of NBC’s Saturday Night Live, which averaged a 6.6 rating, the highest for SNL since January 2012.

They cite his ‘acrid’ tweets and social media posts, which are in turn headlined in nightly news broadcasts and elsewhere in conventional media.

Trump’s $100 Mn Reality Business
“Still, some executives estimated that Mr. Trump may have collected roughly $100 million, including appearance fees, an ownership stake and lucrative sponsorship deals with companies like Chrysler.”
The New York Times, July 16,2016

TV Adspend

Trump tops most national and state polls. Yet, despite an estimated total adspend by the candidates of $35 million to date, his campaign hasn’t bought a single television spot!

His lagging opponents rely on paid advertising, which isn’t working out so well.

And they make stagey attempts to stand out from the crowd in the ‘debates.’

Or, like the patrician Jeb Bush, they are reduced to doing it the hard, old-fashioned way, by pressing the flesh in coffee shops and town halls in the small-population states that tip off the primary season.


The political commentator class explains Trump’s success in terms of the appeal of his bombastic Washington-be-dammed personality; his policies, like accelerated deportations of the undocumented; or shared values, like his recently-acquired reputation for racism.

My hunch is that the analysts are missing the forest for the trees:

  • They are way too busy to watch TV.
  • And anyway, they wouldn’t have missed a single focus group for an episode of ‘The Apprentice.’

And that hit series is the rock solid foundation of Trump’s appeal.

The Apprentice

Let’s look at the numbers:

SeasonT/CUS AA %(‘000)

Notes: T/C = # telecasts. Average persons 2-99. Live + 7.
Source: Nielsen Media Research

That’s an average of 10 million viewers for each episode for 14 years.

And despite the decline, nearly 7 million for the last five!

Those loyal millions got to ‘know’ and like Donald Trump. Amongst all the media and entertainment options available, they felt compelled to return to his show, again and again, over 14 seasons.

  • Many are attracted to his self-defined resume as a never-lose dealmaker.
  • On the show, they like the way he’s tough on the wannabee’s and time-wasters.
  • They see him as decisive: a no-BS guy who owes no one.
  • And he generously rewards the deserving winners!

It’s not a leap for millions of them to believe that their man can tell Washington: “You’re fired!!”

The Trailblazer

Trump was the ‘just right’ candidate to be hatched by an elimination series during the boom-iest days of the Reality TV Boom.

His path was blazed in another era by another Republican, Ronald Reagan.

  • Reagan was a B-movie actor whose screen talent fell a notch or two below stardom.
  • He became a conservative partisan during the Red Scare by denouncing Hollywood’s alleged Communists and sympathizers.

His ties with industry grew, and he was recruited to serve as the host of CBS’s General Electric Theater

  • The show ran for 10 seasons and 300+/- episodes, from 1954 to 1963.
  • As a producer of the series, Reagan achieved financial independence.
  • He became GE’s roving ambassador, lecturing audiences across the U.S. about his patron’s free enterprise mission.

The rest is history: the ‘Great Communicator’ was elected governor of California and then a two-term president.

Then and Now!

Reagan was a perfect media creation for broadcast television during the Cold War.

  • Always perfectly groomed, he rose up the ranks, doing the hard work for corporate, conservative America.
  • He fought through a big loss or two, and finally won it all.

Trump is the Reality TV candidate. He’s the loud-mouthed BIG CHARACTER who sucks the air out of the room for everyone else.

Putting it another way: Does anyone think Donald Trump would be dominating the Republican race without The Apprentice but merely as a real estate magnate with a sideline as an inspirational writer about deal-making.


  • I’ll cover the waning audiences for Reality TV and many of the networks that hitched their carriages to the genre.
  • That thought make me wonder what kind of candidate will be the perfect match for the new Internet video age?

Bit Players

  • Other minor players have ridden the bright lights to political office.
  • Al Franken and Sonny Bono come to mind.

The Apprentice

  • The Apprentice is produced and created by Mark Burnett.
  • Donald Trump also serves as a very involved co-producer.
  • The elimination show promotes itself as the “ultimate job interview” in the “ultimate jungle” to find the talent to head a Trump venture.
  • The winner starts with a 1-year contract and salary of $250,000.
  • The format has been a hit in the UK, Australia and elsewhere.
  • Mark Burnett is a British expat who has achieved much in U.S. television. Maybe his biggest achievement is helping to turn U.S. presidential politics on its head.

More Reading: The New York Times


  1. That proves one more time that Television Production & Politics have a lot in common; both businesses are People centered.

    The key to that similarity : if people like you or your Image, your fame and notoriety will grow to deliver the results that we see with Donald Trump these days.

    However politicians once elected, cannot afford decreasing support for long, since their actions & décisions are far more crucial than a TV Reality show.

    The first one can provoque Social unrest and turmoil in the economy, while the second one will simply Fade out with the decrease of their audience ratings! !

    Seen from here, the issue in the present case, would be not to get mixed between Real Politics and Virtual Reality!

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